Curiosity as Catalyst for Personal Renewal, Community Transformation - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Curiosity as Catalyst for Personal Renewal, Community Transformation

At some point in our life and work, we ask ourselves,

Is there more to know?
Is there more to experience?
Is there more impact or change we can make?

It’s not that we’re ungrateful for what we have. It’s that we get restless, frustrated, fatigued. We heard somewhere that philanthropy was about taking risks, empowering people who have great ideas, catalyzing change.

Instead, our days and weeks are filled with an endless cycle of elaborate funding processes. Our well-intended efforts to steward resources responsibly and minimize risk accumulate over the years. Applications, reports, and evaluations bury us. Preparing for foundation board meetings devours weeks. Gradually the paper and process takes over, crowding out people, relationships, and time to learn, reflect, and evolve. We lose track of philanthropy’s purpose and soul.

Fatigue also comes from not seeing or feeling impact. Problems and issues persist over years and decades, and sometimes only get worse, in spite of continual funding and attention.

We wonder, Is there more to philanthropy than this? Is there another way?

The next time you ask, hold onto that question and don’t let it slip away. Take it seriously, embrace it, hold it close. Then—act on it.

Here is one path.

Through years following the work of hundreds of funders and chronicling their impact, I’ve learned that individuals who make impact and change—and experience the greatest fulfillment from philanthropy—are those who make time in their lives to engage with people in their community or chosen issue, talk with them, listen, and learn.

The funders who catalyze change are those who show up at community and public meetings, attend local nonprofit conferences, talk with people in different walks of life—business people, nonprofit leaders, educators, parents, students, laborers, citizens, journalists, academic researchers, civic leaders, community organizers, legislators and their staffs. By engaging with people and listening, they develop insight into challenges and opportunities.

The journey sparks ideas for where small investments of money and time can leverage huge outcomes.

Here are ways I’ve seen this unfold.

  • A foundation executive director attends a regional nonprofit conference, learns that agencies working in the same field don’t know about each other, and convenes them. The meetings are wildly popular, and the foundation is asked to keep convening.
  • A foundation executive director visits and talks with people around the country who are trying to spark discussions about new ways to address environmental problems. Through listening and conversation, the director discerns how small seed investments of $50K and less, made at the right moment, can help people start powerful conversations with knowledgeable and well-positioned individuals. Some of these networks go on to catalyze innovations in the United States and internationally.
  • A program officer at a community foundation attends public meetings, hears about city money available to expand childcare capacity in the community, and quickly develops a program to raise awareness among providers, and help them take advantage of the funding.
  • A foundation with one staff person and her board do a national scan of their chosen field, talk with dozens of practitioners and experts, and discover that a small but relatively unknown group of innovators is approaching the work in a completely new way—and achieving impressive outcomes. After examining their work and impact, the foundation supports the innovators, connects them to one another and to other practitioners, funds the development of training programs, and over years ends up nurturing a completely new approach to the field across the country.

Not only have these funders discovered powerful opportunities to make impact; they also love what they do. They are engaged and fulfilled. The people they meet and learn from, and the relationships they develop, energize and inspire them.

Something else I’ve observed is how these funders transform the practice of philanthropy from reviewing proposals and funding individual nonprofits to considering a broader array of needs, ideas, and opportunities that emerge from the community or field.

What qualities and behaviors drive funders to engage, listen, and learn?

Our interviews on leadership in philanthropy offer these insights.

  • Curiosity spurs funders to discover what they don’t know, ask questions, and keep asking till they discover gaps and leverage points for change.
  • Passion for important, urgent issues fuels a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, and drives funders to find new, not-yet-considered avenues for change.
  • Awareness of their freedom. Philanthropists are not beholden to customers, shareholders, or voters. Funders who make time to listen and engage understand they have the time and freedom to dive deep into an issue, in a way few others can. They also recognize they have few legal restrictions: the law asks for little in the way of grants process or documentation. They can streamline their practices dramatically, and focus their time on getting out into the community.
  • Awareness of their position and access. Passionate, inquisitive funders make full use of their reputational capital—the power they hold to convene, fund credible research, and talk with people who have expertise and influence. A funder I interviewed reflected, “The decadent thing about philanthropy isn’t the money; it’s that I can sit down and talk with anyone I want.”
  • Recognition of complexity. These individuals recognize there are reasons problems persist for decades. They understand they need to spend time making sense of the social, economic, political, and cultural landscape of their chosen issue before they can determine how to play a meaningful role.
  • Humility. Funders who reach out and talk with people assume their knowledge and worldview is limited. They want to get the bigger story, and they are perfectly comfortable being seen as people who don’t know it all.

In A Curious Mind, Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman reflect on the power of curiosity and asking questions.

We are all trapped in our own way of thinking, trapped in our own way of relating to people. We get so used to seeing the world our way that we come to think that the world is the way we see it. …One of the most important ways I use curiosity every day is to see the world through other people’s eyes, to see the world in ways I might otherwise miss.

Curiosity presumes that there might be something new out there. Curiosity presumes that there might be something outside our own experience out there.

The more I know about the world—the more I understand about how the world works, the more people I know, the more perspectives I have—the more likely it is that I’ll have a good idea. The more likely it is that I’ll understand a good idea when I hear it. The less likely I’ll agree that something is ‘good enough.’

When you know more, you can do more.

Curiosity is a state of mind. More specifically, it’s the state of having an open mind. Curiosity is a kind of receptivity. You just have to ask one good question a day, and listen to the answer.

Inquisitive, engaged funders spend 20 percent of their time out in the community or field. For a full-time position, that means 32 hours, or four days per month. Some spend as much as 50 or 70 percent of their time in the field. These are donors and foundations with just one or two staff. To make time, they pare their grantmaking processes down to the essentials. Grantees love their streamlined approach too.

As a beginning, I encourage you to take 12 hours each month to go out and talk with people. Talk with grantees and also engage people outside the nonprofit world. Go without an agenda. Make it clear to people that you’re not doing grantmaking now, just listening and learning. Listen with a beginner’s mindset.

You’ll find that people will admire you for being humble and curious to learn. People will appreciate the chance to talk about their work, their fears, their ideas, and their dreams. You will build trust and relationships. You will find insights and epiphanies, and see opportunities. And you’ll discover new energy and passion for philanthropy.

Andy-CarrollSenior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo.


  1. These are great recommendations. I spent thirteen years at Fourth Partner Foundation, an intermediary funding organization in East Texas. We found the best way to find great ideas that needed a little extra help to get started or carry on was to get out into the community. We hosted many gatherings of nonprofits for all kinds of reasons. The most important reason of all was so that we could learn from those doing the work. That’s what made us better and enhanced our grant-making.

    • Dawn, I am glad the article resonates. I admire the curiosity, humility, and engagement you brought to your work at the Fourth Partner Foundation. It seems to have opened up opportunities.

  2. Experiential learning breeds curiosity. The strong overlap between people who are both volunteers and donors; plus the dynamic that low-income people (who “live” the problems daily) give a larger share of their wealth than rich people, all point to the power of time, exposure, and experience in the trenches. Site visits are not enough.

    • Steve, excellent observations, and powerfully said. Thank you.

  3. […] are human. They can get discouraged. Worn out. Jaded. So it was with interest that I read “Curiosity a Catalyst for Personal Renewal, Community Transformation” by Andy Carroll of Exponent Philanthropy. He makes some great points about how foundation staff […]

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